Those annual goals and projections set last January come home to roost with scant weeks remaining to achieve successful completion. Add to this mix the high expectations of kith and kin that surface during the holidays, and you can have a veritable powder keg of stress.
Folks who study resiliency emphasize the power of our support networks in keeping sane during a crisis. But what happens when a key player on our team, the boss, goes from having our back to stabbing it instead? Toxic bosses raise the ante on stress to an unbearable level. Read on to hear my take on managing a bad boss relationship.
Sometime in the next few weeks, get out and enjoy the color show nature puts on for us this time of year. Nothing soothes the psyche more than relaxing in the beauty of a colorful landscape!
MANAGING UPWARD: SURVIVING A BAD BOSS
By Dr. Alice Waagen
Maybe it’s the economy or maybe it’s the season. Lately I’ve been hearing tales of leaders suffering under bad bosses. I do not know of anything more debilitating to personal motivation than having a boss who casts a negative shadow on daily interaction. In my past newsletters, I’ve covered a number of aspects of being a good boss such as how to build trust, and how to be compassionate and caring. But being a good boss yourself can be seriously undermined if you are serving under a boss who lacks the fundamental skills of leadership. When that happens, you need to turn your skills and attention to managing upward. Let’s look at the damage control you need to employ when your boss looks more like your enemy than your supporter.
In my observation, the higher one goes in an organization, the more damaging a bad boss can be. Entry-level or junior staff has more options for dealing with poor leadership. It is easier for them to lie low, keep their head down and avoid confrontation. Or they may be able to deflect the boss toward another staff person. But as one advances into leadership positions, work is more visible and politics more prevalent. Avoiding interaction and confrontation becomes much more challenging with a much higher price to pay if things go wrong.
How do you know that you are being hurt by a bad boss? Here are my top 3 symptoms that shout for a call to action:
- Delegation that is either “dump and run” or “give then grab back.” Any delegated task should carry with it a certain degree of autonomy and authority, especially at a leadership level. If you are handed an assignment but denied the authority to choose your method of completion, you are on the receiving end of disabling micromanagement.
- Communication with more holes than Swiss cheese. You should have full information about the work expected from your team, including its purpose and expected outcomes. If you do not know why you are being asked to take on an assignment, you will have difficulty rallying your troops to do their best.
- Feedback that is always negative is based on bad information and is delivered by email. Email screams that the sender does not want to hear your reaction. It also serves as a document and may be being used to create a negative performance file.
If you are experiencing these symptoms and others on a regular basis, you need to work out a strategy to manage upward. Changing another’s behavior is difficult; changing a boss’s behavior when the relationship is strained can be nearly impossible. That said, here are a few survival tips I have found that work:
- Start by determining if the negative behavior is deliberate sabotage or simply the result of poor leadership skills. If the boss treats all direct reports badly, they may not know how to lead others. Try to enlist the help of HR or other leaders to implement a leadership 360 feedback initiative. Once the boss is aware of how their negative behavior is affecting others, they can work with a coach to learn better ways to lead the team.
- If you determine that the negative behavior is directed solely at you, try to determine its cause. In many instances, toxic boss behavior can stem from some form of insecurity. For some reason, the boss may feel threatened by you or the work being done by your team and is trying to damage your reputation as a way to make themselves look good. Be conscious of anything you may be doing that feeds these fears, no matter how groundless they may be. For a time, lie low and avoid any high-visibility projects. Calmly and politely reply to the negative feedback with your own emails, documenting your side of the issues.
- Use every opportunity you have to publicly make your boss look good. Be careful with this, you do not want to look fake or be seen as falsely “sucking up.” But a few genuine words of praise or positive credit may lessen the fear factor and take the heat off for a while.
- Start to plan your escape route. Look for another opportunity elsewhere in the organization. Network with colleagues outside your organization to see what opportunities exist elsewhere. Whether or not you opt to exit, you will have the comfort of knowing that you are prepared to bail if it gets too bad.
Managing upward is a distinct skill set that is of great value in navigating perilous organizational waters. Ideally, every boss relationship in your career should be positive and rewarding for both you and your leaders. In reality, these relationships can get off-kilter. One silver lining I find to a negative boss relationship is that it outlines for you very clearly the boss’ behaviors and attributes to watch out for and avoid in taking on a new position in the future.